Charting your own course
“I frisked him; he’s clean,” says a guy eating a plate of food with authority and certainty. “I’ve frisked a thousand young punks.” A guy gets up from the table where there are three men sitting, and heads to the men’s room. The camera tracks back — twice — to the guy who frisked him. The guy keeps eating his food; however, he’s a cop who has learned to be suspicious, and this touch of directorial nuance builds suspense. As the men are eating their food, the guy in the men’s room is searching for a gun. We know where this is going and it’s not going to be pretty. The scene is from The Godfather, and this is where Michael Corleone — played by Al Pacino — shoots both men and begins his rise as a powerful, ruthless leader. One of the men is named Sollozzo, played by Al Lettieri; the other is a guy named McClusky, played by Sterling Hayden.
In 1976, during the Tall Ship Bicentennial Celebration, I first heard of Sterling Hayden after I grabbed a book called “Voyage” from the Newport Public Library — I was researching sea shanties. This book was so compelling, and credible, that I felt like I was a crewman aboard Neptune’s Car. This novel has it all: a Clipper ship’s terrible rounding of Cape Horn, shanghaied sailors, a pretty lady, and a flawed main character named Simon Basil Harwar. It was apparent that the author was not only a great storyteller and writer, but that he also had a substantial working knowledge of maritime traditions; most importantly, he knew his way around a sailing vessel.
A guy named Irving Johnson was from South Hadley, Mass., and joined the Merchant Marine in 1926. He became an ocean voyager and completed many circumnavigations, and was also an amateur filmmaker; Johnson captured one trip — without sound — which became a film called “Around Cape Horn.” (Google this.) Sterling Hayden cut his teeth sailing after dropping out of high school at age 16, and started to build a resumé. At the tender age of 22, he had taken his first command as master of the square rigger Florence C. Robinson. He took the ship on a 7,700-mile voyage from Gloucester to Tahiti. He shipped as mate aboard Johnson’s S/V Yankee for a circumnavigation, which was a serious endeavor for the 22 year-old Hayden. It was also an important part of the foundation for this complex actor, author, sailor, and soldier. Irving Johnson was a powerful mentor for the young Hayden.
Sterling Hayden was in the right place at the right time in regards to working in the film business. He was a handsome East Coast guy who was single and looking for work, so he went to Hollywood to earn money in order to buy a schooner. Clueless about acting, he scored a gig with Paramount and stayed in town for 18 years. Hayden did 70 films; however, it seemed that acting was just something he did to earn his nickels. He could also see the job was a fleeting endeavor — writing was his passion. “I’m proud of my writing, not my acting, my writing,” he said. His literary foundation is clearly exposed in his autobiography, “Wanderer.” This is a book which requires vigilance in order to catch the author’s inference, snark, and nuance.
Sterling Hayden lays bare his complex life story in “Wanderer.” This guy had an independent and renegade streak which rested on the cusp of being an outlaw. As a professional Merchant Mariner, he knew that to romanticize the sea was pure folly. Hayden could expose his poetic and literary heartbeat in his writing; however, at the very same time he explains the rigor and discipline that is necessary aboard a blue water sailing vessel. He could make a Homeric observation, then shift gears and inform the extreme importance of a helmsman repeating a compass heading at the beginning of a watch. It is these types of juxtapositions which drive the narrative of “Wanderer.” One particular passage in his book deals with a trip to Cuba. He describes in vivid detail the scut work aboard a ship — scraping rust — in sweltering heat of Havana Harbor, and then going ashore for a romantic interlude — which went sideways. Again, we see the brashness of experience rather than what could appear to be a romantic experience. Hayden was a hard-core guy — admittedly flawed — who did not flinch by taking a hard look at himself. It is very hard to look away from his writing; if Hayden doesn’t flinch, then neither should the reader.
Hayden had the burden of being typed as an actor. He was a handsome and fit guy, who stood a solid six feet, five inches, and had natural good looks. He started working as a model before his first job with Paramount, whose publicity machine saddled him with the handle of “The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies.” He worked with the big shot directors John Huston and Stanley Kubrick. Additionally, he worked with big shot leading ladies like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. His career earned him substantial dough but then he blew it — easy come, easy go. It seems like Hayden saw the film business, from fatuous Westerns to Raymond Chandler’s noir stories of L.A.’s underbelly, as a means to an end. Hayden was a non-linear and unbrandable soul who raged against the Hollywood machine. He referred to L.A. as the “City of Angles.”
Sterling Hayden lived a deliberate life — on his terms. When his second marriage ended, he defied a court order and sailed off on his schooner to Tahiti with his children. He was a good father. Later in his life, Hayden lived on a canal barge on the Seine in Paris: hoisted drinks, smoked some reefers, and was ensconced in Parisian culture — he spoke fluent French. Finally, this roughhewn, wandering sailor — back in the day — was known to enjoy watching the ferries coming and going at Old Harbor, Block Island.